There is a new shooter in the world of jazz violin and the dynamic young star Ben Powell was gracious enough to field some questions on his new release and jazz in general.
Tell us about the origin of the record especially as it relates to being broken down into trio and quartet formats and what was it like working with Gary Burton? - especially recording the tune Gary.
B.P. - "Like so many jazz violinists, I wanted to pay tribute to Stéphane Grappelli by way of thanks really. I envisioned this tribute making up a part of an album along side my own material thinking that if Grappelli returned tomorrow, he would like to hear what I was doing with the inspiration he’d given me. To achieve this I felt my CD needed have a clear distinction between the ‘tribute’ material and the rest of the music. With Gary and Julian’s contribution, I was able to offer a very special tribute as the vibes, guitar and violin trio timbre nicely set the tribute apart sonically from the rest of my quartet material on ‘New Street’.
When I was choosing the repertoire for the tribute, Gary contacted me to say that Stéphane had written a tune for him that he (Gary) had never before recorded and asked if I wanted to do it! Needless to say, it was sentimental for Gary, and an overwhelming honor for me to ‘complete the circle’ as it were. The recording of ‘Gary’, and all of the material came together very quickly in the studio. Gary, Julian and I knew it was a rare and quite unique instrumental combination and really enjoyed celebrating this element in our performance. Julian and Gary have a wonderful history, and it was great to play with them both, particularly in this intimate trio setting and on my own record."
You are referred to as a classical prodigy. How has your classical training aided in the transition to jazz and what do you think is the biggest misconception about the violin as a jazz instrument?
B.P. - "Probably at one time in my life I would have said I was a more ‘classically’ orientated violinist than a jazz one in that I’ve played classical repertoire longer than jazz. While I love to compose and explore jazz and improvisation, it is from my classical influences that I draw sound and expression as a violinist. If you will, it is the ‘wellspring’ from where I draw the tools needed to create and express myself as a jazz musician. I’ve always resonated with musicians who have a singing quality to their playing, so this is something I strive for regardless of the idiom. Good sound is critical to me for the purity of expression. Whether I am working with a great classical or jazz musician, their ‘sound’ always has such a distinctive quality, and one should never forget that the power of expression lies in this and not so much in the notes that are being played. I think sound is really what resonates with the human condition and has the potential to ‘move’ people. The violin possesses such powerfully expressive qualities; qualities that the greatest classical composers have written for for centuries. As I pursue my career as a jazz violinist, it is my ambition to celebrate these qualities in my playing. In that way I feel I am contributing to the legacy of the violin as it stands in the world of jazz. On this note, track 6 ‘Sea Shell’ on ‘New Street’ is a classical piece for violin and piano that I arranged for my jazz quartet. It contains no improvisation and yet it fits on the album. It goes to show that by approaching things sonically one can begin to merge idioms seamlessly!
Regarding the violin as a jazz instrument, I think one of the biggest misconceptions, particularly today with all of the technological advances, is that one needs to make the violin ‘fit’ inside the music by altering the sound and/or the way the instrument is played. Dare I say, one feels the need to conform to being like a ‘horn player’? This is not surprising as most jazz violinists learn from books written for horn players, and transcribe solos by them too. While there are definitely some great things to be gained from this, I think the question we need to ask ourselves how we can continue to evolve as jazz violinists? Essentially, translating inspiration into language that pertains to our instrument and allowing us to show off the distinctive qualities of the violin. This was the majesty of Grappelli; never once did you think of any other instrument other than the violin when he played. It was totally convincing. He was the ultimate celebration of the violin in jazz."